Saturday, October 22, 2005

Recordings: Pooh - Friends Forever

Although my daughter has excellent musical taste, we do from time to time buy or borrow so-called "children's music." And although a great deal of it is, well, horrible, and never gets played again after the first listening, there are exceptions. So the other day my wife tells me that she's picked up a Winnie-the-Pooh CD at the library with some tin whistle on a couple tracks, and our daughter likes it. Sounds interesting, but I didn't think much of it. Then a couple days later we're riding in the car and she puts the CD, called, "Pooh - Friends Forever" on.

Well, yes, there's tin whistle, but there's also Uilleann pipes, simple system flute, they're playing a jig, and when I pick up the CD I see that track 13, "Reel Friendship," is performed by Solas. Solas on a Pooh CD?!? How weird is that? Even stranger, you'd hardly know it to look a the CD. Solas is mentioned in tiny type on the back. Most of the musicians are uncredited. The folks from Solas are credited, as are some of the vocalists — sort of — but it's not at all clear who plays most of the instruments on the CD or even who wrote the songs. Do John Doyle and Winifred Horan play only on the single Solas track? Someone with a better ear for style than I posess will have to answer that. Seamus Egan is credited for playing the bodhran — only! All in all it's an odd little find.

Not all of the CD is ITM. Granted, ITM doesn't generally feature Tigger on vocals, but some of the tracks are a bluegrassy version of what you've come to expect from "Pooh songs" if you've seen a few of the Disney movies. That doesn't make them bad, however; the whole CD is a cut above the typical Disney soundtrack.

You can hear samples of the CD at the Amazon page.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Practice: Hard Wired Foot

Changing how I tap my foot turns out to be extremely difficult! It's hard to think about that and whistle at the same time, so I've been doing it while humming or listening to CDs. I also worked on this when I went to my local session last week (at least, when I wasn't playing). Someone later told me that I looked like I was really concentrating....

I can sorta do it for the first part of the only reel I know right now (my session seems to lean heavily towards jigs and hornpipes, so that's mostly what I've been learning) but I have to think about it a lot. I haven't begun to deal with the issue which caused me to need to do this, which is getting the swing of a reel right. I think I need to wait until the toe-tapping comes as naturally as it used to before I can do that.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

WWW: Nude Pipe and Whistle Calendar

The calendar you've always wanted but have never thought to ask for is now on sale. But the effort did not come without certain technical difficulties:

Following the success of the previous two years (the 2004 nude accordion calendar "Pulling Out All The Stops" and the 2005 nude guitar calendar "No Strings Attached"), the Folk Arts Council Board decided that in 2006 we should buff up with bagpipes and whistles – undoubtedly a more challenging proposition for intrepid photographer Sheilagh O'Leary. The average tin whistle might not be up for the job of hiding someone's private parts, even if a low D whistle is used!

Sales benefit the St. John's Folk Arts Council, for those needing to justify the charge to their spouse.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Technique: Tapping Out a Reel

For the last three weeks I've been trying to avoid learning anything new.

More precisely, I've been practicing the tunes I've learned thus far, focusing on performance. My renditions of several of the tunes had become a bit sloppy, and my teacher asked me to focus my practice on playing the tunes well rather than new tunes or techniques. It was timely advice.

One of the things I noticed when I stopped making as many mistakes and got my timing more consistent is that a reel I've been learning, the Five Mile Chase started sounding really mechanical — like a string of eighth notes rather than a reel. This was very similar to a similar problem I had with jigs which I'm presently working on correcting. I made a note to bring the issue up with my teacher and expected a similar solution.

Interesting advice

I had a lesson last night, and his suggestion surprised me a little. Yes, I need to emphasize notes differently depending on their position in the measure. But the best way to fix this, it seems, is to change the way I tap my foot.

I doubt I would have come up with that one on my own! Part of his advice has to do with counting in cut time instead of common time. But part of it is literally changing the physical way I move my foot. I'll treat both issues separately.

Reel beats

It's common to see reels notated in both common (4/4) and cut (2/2) time. In both common and cut time there are the same number of quarter notes per measure, so the note values won't change if you move from one time signature to the other. But it's generally understood the music in cut time is played faster, since there are half as many beats to count. Also, the emphasis is different: You emphasize the notes which fall on a count more than those which do not, so fewer counts means fewer emphasized notes.

On the subject of how to notate a reel, Alan Ng writes:

A group is defined here as a sequence of notes whose first note is synchronized with the (main) tap of the musician's foot in a traditional performance.

Reel: Two groups of four notes each, adding up to an eight-note bar. Within each group there are two heavy-light pairs. Accordingly, I notate reels in 2/2 meter, not in 4/4. A 4/4 notation is a less accurate reflection of the traditional sense of rhythm in a reel...

Well, the "traditional sense of rhythm in a reel" is exactly what I'm aiming for, so Ng's advice is in line with my teacher's in that respect. I confess that when I started playing the whistle I'd sometimes count reels notated in cut time in common time instead, simply because my playing was so pathetic that I'd lose track of the beat if I had to go four notes in between taps. But I'm past that now!

Methods of foot tapping

I've been involved in making music in one capacity or another for over 15 years now, and it had never before occurred to me that there are different methods of tapping your toe. But there are, and it's quite enlightening to ponder.

What I had been doing is holding my toe off the ground and then tapping it onto the ground on each beat. This is quite tiring, so I tend to switch feet when my leg gets tired. My teacher's first suggestion was to keep my foot on the ground and lift it up before the beat, bringing it to the ground on the beat, and keeping it on the ground until just before the next beat. This is a different sense of rhythm than I'm used to, and it's going to take some practice.

For a reel in cut time, he suggested lifting my foot off the ground on the half beats (what would be the 2 or the 4 beats if the same passage was notated in common time) and bringing it to the ground on the full beats (the 1 and the three in common time). Again, I'm going to have to practice this while listening to a CD or humming before I can even try this while playing.

Counting this way makes the beats to emphasize quite similar to a jig. Handy, that.

Time to practice

I ususally have lessons every two weeks, but due to circumstances it has been three weeks since my last lesson. I don't mind that a bit; it gave me lots of time to practice and listen to myself. We tried lessons every week for a while, but that was too often; I didn't have time to practice what we'd discussed the week before. Sometimes less is more.

Saturday, October 01, 2005

Practice: Not Too Late

This is a small thing, but it makes a big difference for me: Since I have a full-time job and a family, I tend to practice in the evening. Sometimes night. But I've found it's really worth the effort to practice as early as I can. 8:00 or 9:00 at night is fine. But at 10:00 or later I'm really too tired to focus. Practice is much more satisfying when I'm not too tired to concentrate.

Similarly, I can't practice well if I'm stressed out or have other things on my mind. This all might seem kind of obvious, but it was easy for me to allow housework to push my practice sessions very late, and I've now made a point of practicing first, since my housework doesn't suffer nearly so much for me being tired or distracted.